Edith whartons the house of mi
Lily Bart, the central character in Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth , was born into the fringes of high society in late nineteenth century New York. She developed a, “lively taste for splendour”(page 30) and a fear of, ”dinginess”.(page 35). Everything within this social circle is measured in monetary value, people and things alike are treated as commodities. This is the only way of life Lily knows, and without the financial means to sustain herself, Lily is destined to be a victim of this commodification of people and objects. Victim is defined in the Oxford Concise Dictionary , as a, “person or thing harmed or destroyed in the pursuit of an object or in gratification of a person”. Commodifiaction is defined as “the action of turning something into, or treating something as a commodity” and commodity is defined as, “an article of raw material that can be brought and sold”.
It was Mrs Bart who had raised Lily to value the finer things in life and fear the “dinginess”(page 35) that she associated with those who did not have money, or those who did not choose to spend their money on luxury. When Mrs Bart died, she died, “ ......of a deep disgust. She had hated dinginess, and it was her fate to be dingy”(page 35). But Lily’s mother alone is not solely to blame for this want, Lily says of her need for luxury,
..I suppose (it was) -in the way I was brought
up, and the things I was taught to care for. Or-no I won’t blame
anybody for my faults: I’ll say it was in my blood (page 226)
Although Lily felt that she should not blame anyone else for her high tastes she does not blame herself. She uses the excuse that it was in her blood that her fate to live for splendour was predetermined. Lily therefore sees herself as victim, a victim because it was her fate. Mrs Barts parental guidance did help to shape Lily’s value for the extravagant. It was Mrs Bart who taught Lily to value her beauty. Lily was told by her mother, “after they had lost all their money” (page 28) that Lily’s asset was her beauty. Mrs Bart saw the potential for trading Lily’s beauty for a rich husband, so they would have the means to sustain themselves in ‘high society’. Mrs Bart saw Lily’s beauty as:
.....the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus
around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously,
as though it were her own property and Lily it’s mere custodian; (page 34)
by treating Lily’s beauty as a commodity, she was treating Lily the person to which that beauty belonged, as a commodity. Lily also sees her beauty and therefore herself as a commodity. So from the age that Lily ‘came out’ her purpose in life, bestowed upon her by her mother and her ‘predetermined fate’, was to marry wealth.
For Lily like any good victim, there are always flaws to even the most water tight plans. Lily’s first challenge to her goal of , “marrying a great deal of money” (page 83) is the constant threat of time. Lily Barts physical beauty, is a perishable commodity. Miss Bart is first introduced to the reader at the not so tender age of twenty-nine, the commodity of physical beauty only depreciates in value with age. This sense of time running out for Lily to secure her fortunes is always present,
....she was frightened by the two little lines near
her mouth, faint flaws in the smooth curve of her check.
.....................and it seemed an added
injustice that petty cares should leave a trace on the beauty
which was her only defence against them (page 28)
Ironically when Mr Van Alstyne, discusses Lily posing for a portrait, he talks of how, “..the picture’d appreciate a hundred per cent in ten years”. An item such as a portraiture of beauty, would only ever gain value with time unlike her physical beauty. The name, “Lily” would have been seen by the reader, (at the time the novel was first published) as a reference to the “art